how to read like a real academic

academics love to talk about imposter syndrome. the idea is that we all pretend to be smarter, more well-read, more capable of original thought than everyone else in the room, and that when we’re alone we’re convinced that it’s all a performance, a guise, a ruse. one thing (besides race/class/gender/sexuality/ableism) that fuels these feelings is the reality that we can never possibly Master All The Knowledge, Read All The Books, Digest All The Knowledge.

as a scholar, we have to learn about and then stay on top of literature in our field. that means we need to eat/sleep/breathe books. except, we can’t actually eat/sleep/breathe books. and so, instead, we have to gut books. that is, we have to find a way into argument and evidence, fast and well, and do it over and over and over and over.

many, many, many, many treatises on how to gut a book are out there (yes, please read all four of those short blog posts in anticipation of our first meeting). but, can you really read a book in an hour? well, not the whole thing, of course. as academics, as scholars, we must find a way to engage with others ideas as fast and as furiously (read: enthusiastically, robustly, not angrily) as we can. on our first night, we’ll talk about these matters and you will spend the semester finding your own way into effective scholarly reading. ok, maybe you’ll spend your life actually honing it, but we’ll get you started on your path.

welcome to introduction to public history. we’re going to have a very good time.


chugging along

here we are, midway through the semester, and it feels like we just began. well, at least in terms of the course’s conversations, if not in my winter-weary bones themselves.

as hoped for, we’ve had some vibrant discussions about film, memory, evidence, interpretation, visuality, and truth. the group is an amalgam of comparative humanities and public history folk, which in some ways is the classroom community i’ve been waiting for. i myself was trained in cultural studies, interdisciplinary humanities, museum studies, public history, and then, finally, a traditional history doctorate. among us, we’ve got perspectives on postcolonial theory, memoir writing, indigenous politics and history, journalistic standards, museum education, community history projects, and a rich variety of personal backgrounds. one of us comes from a film studies background, another was a subject of a documentary film in high school. some of us watch doc films whenever possible, some were never really drawn to the form before this term.

even though i connect with each of my students in terms of training or life, or both, i’m finding it a rewarding challenge to structure our conversations in a way in which all are engaged and everyone truly interacts with the ideas of others. most sessions a student leads us through the week’s readings. as they’re doing this, i’m trying to give them the space to make a meaningful contribution to our class while also finding a way to work in my approach to the material. i often joke that it means i’m the class border collie. i love this method. i get so much more from our readings because their ideas structure our conversation rather than my four or five points leading the way. it’s also an opportunity to further develop my feminist pedagogy chops, as i court that sweet, sweet, sweet spot of sharing control, challenging them, and reworking power relationships within the classroom.

and, i’m also trying to blog more myself as i go, both for transparency’s sake, but also to keep our conversations alive all week. as we spend a fair chunk of our time together watching films, it’s nice to let the ideas flow back and forth across the ether throughout the week. i love getting the notification that one of them have written, and it really keeps a circular flow to our movement through the weeks, rather than all of the class energies manifesting only on thursday night.
now, if i could only discipline myself to actually write my posts more than a few hours before our class meeting…

up and running with doc film class

This term I am embarking on an exciting and daunting new path. I have been mulling the role of documentary film in the cultivation of historical knowledge for several years now since becoming hooked on the form by attending the True/False Film Festival for the first time eight years ago.

And, I am not the only convinced of the power of non-fiction cinema in evoking the past. Film scholar Bill Nichols suggests that “film itself provides a tangible “memory theater” of its own. It is an external, visible representation tation of what was said and done. Like writing, film eases the burden to commit sequence and detail to memory. Films often become a source of ‘popular memory,’ giving us a vivid sense of how something happened pened in a particular time and place.” For Nichols, doc film is inherently historical, as an interpretive text that engages human experiences in the past. I am inclined to agree and probe even further into the production of this popular filmic memory.

So, this term, as I feel much more green than I would teaching a course for which I had been formally trained (interdisciplinary humanities and museum studies at the BA and MA level, traditional history doctorate), I intend to embrace the journey along with my students, blogging the experience and creating my own short doc film along with them. This promises to be a wild and varied term.


Interesting Things in Public History this Week

cool oral history mapping project and a new tiya miles’ book!


Narratives of Displacement Oral History Project

Anti-eviction Mapping Project of Bay Area Residents:

Art Binder

Alexandra Chemla created the app, Art Binder. The app allows you to digitally collect artwork and its details.

Interview with Chemla:

Book: Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the civil War Era, Tiya Miles

Listen to her:

I heard Dr. Miles on Here and Now (with Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson): “How Ghost Tours Often Exploit African-American History.” She discussed her new book, which focuses on tours in the South that provide tours to homes were slaves died and lived and where slaves are buried. She argues these tours are not accurate and exploit slavery.

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How to Actually Share Authority: Dealing With Interpretive Conflict in Public History

wonderfully thoughtful post from one of my students on shared authority in her thesis work.


Our readings for this week all deal with the construction of narrative. Katherine Borland’s “That’s Not What I Said: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research” was particularly resonant for me. In this article, Borland relates the story of interviewing her grandmother about a past life experience, and the ensuing conflict that arose between them when Borland’s interpretation of the story’s meaning was quite different than that intended by her grandmother.

I am currently engaged in research for my thesis, the subjects of which are members of The Sisters of Loretto, an order of Roman Catholic women religious. A significant number of my sources are Sisters’ oral histories–some conducted at the time of the order’s 200th anniversary in 2012, and others that I have or may conduct myself. My first contact with the Sisters of Loretto was this past summer, when I began working as an intern in the archives…

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